On an expansive four-acre property on Magazine Street sets a statuesque grey building. The Old Charleston Jail is a stunning landmark that has been the scene of many of the city’s most tortured tales. It’s said that many of the building’s permanent residents are still imprisoned within the aging grey walls.
The Old Charleston Jail grounds were central to the history of Charleston’s legal system. The jail housed many inmates. The workhouse also provided a location for many trials, often with rumors of unfair verdicts and bias.
The jail has a rich history and has been home to many of Charleston’s most notorious criminals. The gallows have seen many executions. The cell walls have felt the desperate yearning of freedom from so many trapped inside. Visiting the ominous building can give you the chance to witness the tortured spirits still trapped on the grounds. To check out our Charleston Ghost Story Tours, go here.
The Old Charleston Jail is A Historical Landmark
The Old Charleston Jail was built in 1802 on land originally reserved for public use when South Carolina was settled. The prison shared the grounds with a hospital, workhouse, and poorhouse. The large building functioned as a prison until 1939. During that time, the prison would house countless criminals that left their mark on history.
Originally, the stately building consisted of four stories. A two-story octagonal tower set atop it, providing a spanning view of the burgeoning city. By 1855, the building had to be even further expanded to grow its capacity for more prisoners.
Area arcitects Louis Barbot and John Seyle were tasked with the jail’s renovation. They added a large rear wing to the building to create more cells for the growing inmate population. They also added the Romanesque Revival details, giving the building its dramatic and gothic appearance.
Unfortunately, the 1866 earthquake badly damaged the structure. The tower had to be removed from the top. The highest of the building’s four stories was also destroyed. Much of the work that Barbot and Seyle put into the structure was undone by the disaster.
Despite the damage, the jail continued to house inmates It remained in operation up until 1939, serving as a backdrop to the dramatic stories of its many inmates.
Denmark Vesey Led a Revolt at the Haunted Jail
Denmark Vesey is infamous for leading a slave uprising in Charleston. His ability to read and his carpentry skills made him a leader in the black community. His followers strongly believed in his bold mission to free slaves and lead them to refuge.
Vesey was born into slavery but became a free man at the age of 32. He was first owned by a man in Bermuda then was later brought to Charleston. It was there that Vesey won the lottery that gave him the chance to purchase his own freedom.
He helped to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. The church grew quickly, as did his followers. Quickly growing to nearly 2,000 members, it gave him the perfect passionate network to plan his slave revolt.
In 1822, Vesey hatched a plan that included killing slave owners in order to liberate their slaves. There were thousands of slaves both in the city of Charleston and on nearby plantations. Vesey’s goal was to free these slaves and ship them to freedom in Haiti.
However, the militia caught wind of Vesey and his followers’ scheme before it was planned to begin on July 14, 1822. The group’s leaders were arrested on June 22, 1822. The workhouse on the prison grounds became the scene for the trials against the leaders of the revolt. Vesey and five slaves were tried in secret and without a jury.
The men were all sentenced to death by hanging on July 2, 1822. Over the years, 30 more of Vesey’s followers were also executed. The church that Vesey worked so hard to establish was later disbanded by the city.
Many believe that Vesey lived out the last days of his life in the tower of The Old Charleston Jail. He sat in wait for his execution, looking over the city that had unfairly demonized him. It’s no wonder that his tortured spirit might still haunt the grounds where he spent his final hours.
Jacque Alexander Tardy Stayed at the Charleston Jail
One of the evilest pirates of the time had a stay at The Charleston City jail from 1825 to 1827. Jacque Alexander Tardy was a ruthless French pirate that had an affinity for poisoning his victims. He ended up in jail after his failed attempt to steal a pilot boat.
Tardy moved to Charleston in October of 1825, pretending he was a dentist to scam the residents. On November 18, Tardy enlisted two crew members to help him steal the pilot boat Cora. However, the owners of the boats caught him and fiercely defended their property.
Tardy tried to escape, even firing his pistol at them. However, he was caught and tried for his crime. He was convicted of the attempted theft on March 3, 1825. He would go on to serve a two-year term at The Charleston City Jail.
After Tardy’s release, he fled to Cuba. Unchanged by his time at The Charleston City Jail, he returned to his life of crime. He continued to steal boats and poison victims to siege their property.
Tardy would later take his own life. He slit his own throat and his body was found in the captain’s quarters. He was appropriately buried at sea, face down at a low tide mark. It’s said that his restless soul continues to travel and wreak havoc on victims.
The Fishers Were Kept at the Charleston Jail
John and Lavinia Fisher are likely the most infamous prisoners of The Old Charleston Jail. The couple has a truly unique and haunting story. Their bizarre personalities and the dynamics of their imprisonment have surely left their mark on the jail.
Lavinia Fisher has made her mark on history by becoming the first female serial killer in the United States. She and her husband’s crazed plot let to the deaths of many unknowing visitors to their inn. It’s still unknown how many murders they are responsible for. However, Lavinia continued to reveal her evilness right up to her dying breath.
A Twisted Scheme of the Fishers
John and Lavinia owned an inn six miles outside of town, appropriately named Six Mile House. The inn was also a hangout for many devious gang members and outlaws. Its location also made it a prime stopping point for businessmen and tradesmen en route to and from business trips.
The Fishers concocted an outlandish plan, fueled purely by their greed. Lavinia was beautiful and alluring and knew how to get men to notice her. This allowed her to successfully invite these wealthy travelers into the inn and make them feel at ease. Little did they know, it would be their final destination.
Lavinia served the men cups of tea made with toxic oleander. The concoction would make them drowsy and they would retire to their rooms to fall into a deep sleep. This is when John would take action and rob them of any valuables or cash they were traveling with.
After robbing them, John and Lavinia weren’t taking any chances of getting caught. They would ensure the men never left The Six Mile House to tell others about the crime. The Fishers deciding that murdering their victims was the best way to ensure they could continue their crime spree.
Some stories say that John would stab the victims to death. Others believe that there was a trapdoor under the inn’s beds that would drop the victims to the cellar. Either way, it’s said that the corpses of many of the inn’s guests ended up deep below the inn.
Two Important Witnesses
After hearing all of the reports of crime surrounding the Six Mile House, a group was sent to put a stop to it in February of 1819. This group of vigilantes sought to end the gambling and reported robbings of those passing through. One member of this group was a man named David Ross.
The vigilante group felt they were successful in stopping the activity and returned to Charleston. However, they wanted continued surveillance in the area so they left Ross behind to keep an eye on things. What happened to him just a few days later terrified him and would lead to a break in the case.
The gang members Ross was tasked with watching attacked Ross. When he desperately looked to Lavinia for help, he was shocked by her response. Instead of coming to his aid, Lavinia straggled him and slammed his head through a windowpane. Ross reacted quickly and was able to escape and alert the authorities back in Charleston.
That evening, John Peebles came to stay at The Six Mile House. Lavinia initially turned him away and claimed that there was no room available but that he was welcome to come in for a rest. He came inside and accepted her offer of tea to be polite. He hated tea so when Lavinia wasn’t looking, he poured it into a houseplant.
As they chatted, the Fishers couldn’t understand why the tea wasn’t working. John was growing frustrated and impatient. Lavinia continued her attempts to stall and make chit chat. Finally, out of desperation, Lavinia changed her tune and said that a room was indeed available. Peebles wearily agreed to stay that night at the inn.
However, his instincts kicked in and likely saved his life. The Fishers and their odd behavior caused Peebles to keep his guard up. Instead of sleeping in the bed, Peebles chose to sleep in a wooden chair near the bedroom door to be more alert of his hosts and their actions.
A loud sound suddenly wakened Peebles from his light slumber in the middle of the night. He opened his eyes to see that his bed had descended into the floor through a trap door. He was shocked and grateful that he had chosen to doze in the chair instead.
Peebles quickly fled through the window of the room and jumped on his horse. He rode swiftly to Charleston and told the authorities about what had occurred. This, combined with the account of David Ross, prompted a quick response from the police.
A Swift Arrest and Trial
Lavinia and John Fisher were arrested on February 18, 1819. The police thoroughly searched their property and found evidence of the disappeared men. The Fishers were brought to sit in The Charleston Jail to await trial.
At their trial in May, John and Lavinia insistently and passionately proclaimed their innocence. They were adamant that they weren’t involved in any wrongdoing. However, the jury didn’t buy into it.
Because of the lack of evidence, the Fishers couldn’t be found guilty of murder. However, with all of the valuables found in their home, they were easily convicted of highway robbery. This was a capital offense at the time and John and Lavinia were sentenced to death by hanging.
A Desperate Appeal
Desperate to save themselves from the gallows, John and Lavinia immediately staged an appeal. The judge agreed to hear their appeal when the courts came back into session early the next year. They were to sit in The Charleston Jail until their hearing.
However, the Fishers grew impatient and hacked a plan to escape in September. They created a rope out of prison linens and attempted to climb over the walls to freedom. Their plan proved unsuccessful when their flimsy rope broke after only John got free.
Refusing to leave Lavinia alone in the cell, John returned to the prison. The guards were now aware of just how devious the couple was. They were kept under much heavier watch to prevent any other chance of escape.
On February 4, 1820, the judge rejected their appeal. The couple was to be hanged at the gallows of The Charleston Jail on February 18. John and Lavinia reacted in two very different ways.
A Dramatic Exit
John sought the help of the Reverend Richard Furman. This was his last attempt to save his life or at least his soul. The reverend counseled him up until his dying day.
John penned a letter that Reverend Furman would read at his execution. He stood before the crowd and read of John’s insisted innocence. He claimed the judicial process was flawed and he blamed it for his wrongful conviction.
The crowd looked on as John grew desperate. He begged the onlookers to reconsider his innocence. In the end, however, he asked for their forgiveness before his execution.
Lavinia handled her impending death much differently. She insisted on wearing her wedding gown on her execution day. She was unwillingly to go to the gallows so guards had to carry her there as she was kicking and screaming.
She yelled at the socialites in the crowd and blamed them for her fate. She stood atop the gallows writhing about as executioners struggled to tighten the noose. But Lavinia decided she was going to her death on her own terms.
Before the executioners were ready, Lavinia lept to her death. Her lifeless body swayed over the crowd as the life drained from her eyes. Shocked townspeople looked on as Lavinia screamed her last words, “If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me. I’ll carry it!”
The Fishers’ bodies were likely unclaimed by any family members. The protocol at the time was to bury unclaimed corpses in the cemetery next to the jail. It’s often said that Lavinia and John Fishers’ bodies and souls have never left the prison grounds.
Other Infamous Prisoners at the Old Charleston Jail
The Charleston Jail was very busy during the Civil War. Many prisoners of war were housed within its walls. Many of them didn’t survive their stay. It’s believed that their souls are still trapped within the jail.
Jacque Tardy wasn’t the only pirate that had a stint at the jail. Many high-sea pirates served time for various crimes. Some moved on, but often some would lose their lives in their cells, never seeing freedom again.
Preserving the Haunted Jail
The American College of the Building Arts took over The Charleston Jail property in 2000. They created a preservation plan in an attempt to ensure that the structure remained intact. This was difficult because of the unique structure and the skills needed to preserve it.
The college moved out in 2016 when the grounds were sold to a private developer. However, the structure remains a historical landmark. It’s an ongoing project of The National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Eerie Experiences at the Old Charleston Jail
Those that have been to The Old Charleston Jail have reported some truly eerie experiences. The prisoners’ sprits seem to be determined to let visitors know of their presence. The stories and tragedies that have happened on the ground bring an eerie life to it.
Just walking by the jail can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Its presence is daunting and hovers over Magazine Street. You’ll experience a one of a kind sensation being so near such tragic history.
Visiting The Old Charleston Jail grounds is an unforgettable experience. Being on the grounds where criminals lived their final days is a truly unique feeling. The area can give you a glimpse into the past of many of Charleston’s most dramatic crimes.